Ed. note: The following excerpt is taken from Stan Cox’s new book The Path to a Livable Future, published by City Lights. You can find out more about the book and order it here.
The excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them. They realize this—paradoxically—by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principles on which a new world will be built.—James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, 1972
Voting Donald Trump out of the White House may have forestalled a descent into fascism, but it did not resolve our national predicament. It’s as if, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the 2015 film The Revenant, we had fought off a bear attack, but we were all still lost in the wilderness, gravely injured and not knowing how many more bears were out there. The election results preserved an opportunity to reverse the climate emergency, but achieving that with the necessary speed is now an even more daunting prospect, given that we lost four precious years. Trump’s defeat most likely prevented many thousands more Covid-19 deaths, but it came too late to save the hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been saved. And while freeing ourselves from white supremacy at the highest levels of the Executive Branch achieved an important victory, even more strenuous efforts lie ahead to completely emancipate U.S. society from racial injustice.
We lived to fight another day, but we didn’t buy ourselves any time. The urgency of our predicament is even greater than before the nightmare of 2020 began. Not only does the death toll from police shootings of Black people keep rising, communities of color remain outside many of the political processes required to restructure the institutions that directly impact their security, safety, health, and quality of life. Millions of people don’t have access to adequate food, health care, or clean air and water. And we are hurtling faster than ever toward the deadline for ending greenhouse emissions. The United Nations reported in 2020 that a decade of global procrastination on climate has dramatically raised the bar for effective climate mitigation. Greenhouse emissions will now need to be reduced at four times the annual rate that would have been required if serious collective climate action had started in 2010. That will be exceedingly difficult, but there’s still a chance. Procrastinate a little longer, and our chance of success dwindles significantly.
For decades, but especially since the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, there has been much speculation over the threshold for declaring and acting on the global ecological emergency—in other words, how big and extreme do climate disasters have to be, how many lives do they have to take, how high must the price in economic misery be, before our society collectively decides to do what is necessary? Disasters have become more deadly, more destructive, and more numerous, but they have not yet reached the threshold at which our society is willing to shake off its resistance to change. We now need to educate ourselves to understand that the disasters we face are part of an ongoing process, a trajectory of calamities increasing in momentum and intensity, and not a series of unrelated one-offs. To wait until a disaster is massive enough to incentivize collective change may very well mean to wait far too long, as there will be no vaccine to immunize ourselves against the mass extinctions, wildfires, drought, and food chain collapse that climate scientists forecast for us. The time to act is now.
Public health and climatic stability are linked and must be dealt with together. Likewise, without a focus on abolishing injustice, working on climate change alone will address only the symptoms, not the root structural causes of our collective maladies. In some ways, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic delayed and complicated efforts to tackle the global climate emergency. In other ways, it provided a glimpse of what decisive action on the global ecological crisis should look like—and what it should not look like. Many of the same ecologically sound measures that can reduce risk of future pandemics are also necessary to prevent climatic catastrophe.
Necessarily bold climate action has long been rejected because it is seen as an obstacle to unlimited economic growth, and thus too extreme to be considered by a capitalist political system. The pandemic woke us to the fact that a five-alarm global emergency requires that we set aside business as usual in order to take extraordinary actions and accept dramatic departures from everyday life. Some nations did that in 2020, but unfortunately, neither the U.S. government nor the owning and investing classes had the stomach for extraordinary measures. Throughout the year, neither the coronavirus nor the climate emergency was adequately addressed.
The full story of 2020, however, was even bigger. The pandemic and economic collapse not only converged with the climatic nightmares of the wildfires in the West and the onrush of hurricanes and tropical storms that depleted the weather authorities’ alphabetical list of twenty-six planned names and then ran nine letters deep into the Greek alphabet—it also coincided with America’s racial reckoning and broad support of the Black Lives Matter groundswell; with a street-level struggle against white supremacy and state violence; and with the battle to defend voting rights and the rule of law against the proto-fascist forces that were being mobilized by Team Trump through the Executive Branch. Peering back through that maelstrom, is it possible to discern both the necessity and the possibility of bottom-up transformation?
Exploitation of ecosystems and mineral resources is a triple threat, lying at the root of the climate emergency, the growing threat of pandemic diseases, and the widespread degradation of the environmental circumstances in which marginalized communities are often stuck. The threats to the climate, public health, and local environments have a disproportionate impact on people of color, Indigenous communities, immigrants, and other marginalized people, both in the United States and across the globe. Consequences include poverty, hunger, illness, and oppression. These political legacies of white supremacy continue to undermine our collective wellbeing. The national failure to act on the climate emergency has its roots in an attitude held by much of affluent white society that its members can shield themselves while marginalized and impoverished people here and around the world suffer the worst consequences of deadly heat waves, flooding, landslides, and storms. Countering white, male, and other supremacies at the root of environmental injustice requires diversifying the process of change itself to weave in the strategies, leadership, social dynamics, and traditions of communities of color, Indigenous communities, women and youth, and others whose voices have not yet been heard.
Cruel calculation also lies behind the failure of many of our political leaders and their supporters to deal effectively with the health injustices that were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout 2020, the coronavirus killed people in Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities at approximately double the rate suffered by white people. In 2020, life expectancy decreased by nine months in the U.S. white population, by almost two years in the Latino population, and by 2.7 years in the Black population. When vaccines finally became available, their rates of delivery reflected a perverse logic, one not of medical ethics but of privilege. By mid-February 2021, 9.1 percent of whites had received at least the first dose, compared with 4.5 percent of Blacks and 3.5 percent of Latinos. Waiting at the tail end of the queue to obtain vaccinations were the nation’s 3 million farmworkers, for all the same reasons that they’d had so little access to protective equipment and occupational measures to prevent infection throughout the pandemic. In one bright spot, Indigenous people, who have suffered higher Covid-19 death rates than any other group, had the highest inoculation rate at that point: 11.6 percent. This success came thanks in part to tribal vaccination programs that were apparently “running more efficiently and effectively than in many states,” according to the Guardian, as well as greater acceptance of vaccines than prevails in non-Indigenous communities.
White decisionmakers on the right could look at the racial and ethnic differences in death rates and conveniently see the strange new coronavirus as someone else’s problem. They remained as unconcerned about the white privilege and systemic racism that created the huge disparities in the virus’s impact as they were about the virus itself. With economic growth at stake, those near the peak of the wealth pyramid seemed to view the pandemic, like the climate emergency, as something against which their wealth was a shield, protecting them until business as usual could properly resume. That kind of thinking would have catastrophic consequences.
In 2020, it became crystal clear that American society could not resolve its proliferating crises one by one. Public health officials were constantly featured in the media saying that Washington couldn’t revive the economy until the pandemic was suppressed. But it was also impossible to deal with either Covid-19 or the climate emergency without confronting systemic racism head-on. To quote the climate activist Vanessa Nakate, “Every climate activist should be advocating for racial justice because if your climate justice does not involve the most affected communities, then it is not justice at all.” Furthermore, neither newly emerging pandemic pathogens nor runaway greenhouse warming can be avoided without reversing ecological destruction. And, to complete the circle, neither racial justice nor health justice nor environmental justice nor climate justice can be fully secured without turning the existing economy inside out, dedicating it to meeting society’s needs, not feeding the net worth of the plutocrats. Sacoby Wilson, a University of Maryland environmental health scientist, put it this way:
“Covid-19 has shown that we have a lot of Haves in this country, but we have a lot more Have-Nots. Our policies have disproportionally benefited the Haves while disproportionately impacting the Have-Nots. To address the disparities in Covid-19, we have to address our structural inequalities in this country. The first place to start is race and racism.”